Community is just as essential to spiritual growth as content. Think about this: Jesus who designed your brain also taught you how to make disciples. According to one study, Jesus spent 73% of His time with His disciples. This involved teaching, eating, serving, debating, correcting, and sending. All of this was wrapped around community. While the Enlightenment hijacked the Western church’s approach to disciple making, neuroscience is showing the importance of community in developing godly character.
Disciple making is not merely a transfer of information. It’s not simply making better choices. Disciple making is certainly not a process. After all, you’re not manufacturing widgets. And, as I’ve written before, sermons don’t make disciples. Character is formed in community. How is community formed? Here are some ways to connect your congregation into community:
Leverage Existing Relationships
“Everyone is already in a group.” That’s the first sentence of my first book, Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential(Hendrickson 2017) . When you think about your people, they are in families, workplaces, classes, sports teams, hobbies, friendships, and neighborhoods. Over the years, I discovered that some people won’t join a small group because they value these relationships more than a church small group. Rather than grousing against that pull, I embraced it. Resource and empower people to make disciples in the groups they already enjoy. You don’t have to make it hard.
The short of it is if you will give your people permission and opportunity to start a group, give them an easy-to-use resource (like self-produced curriculum with your pastor’s teaching), a little training, and a coach to walk alongside them, you can start more groups than you’ve ever dreamed. If you don’t know the leader, then don’t advertise their group. They’re gathering their friends anyway. These groups tend to form more easily and stay together longer than groups formed in other ways. After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers. (You’ll have to read the rest of Exponential Groups to learn the system of starting and sustaining small groups for the long haul.) Leveraging existing relationships is one way to create community.
Pursuing a Common Topic or Interest
Sometimes community starts from the other direction. Instead of gathering friends for a study, people sign up for group based on a relevant topic. You can start groups around marriage, parenting, relationships, finances, Bible studies, book clubs, and a myriad of other subjects. People are drawn by the topic, but stay for the community.
Similarly, you can start groups around hobbies, interests, or activities. What do your people enjoy doing? These groups can connect both people in your church and in your community. Again, by giving permission and opportunity, someone with an interest can start a group around it.
Now in both of these cases, you will need to know these leaders well, since you will advertise these groups. They will need to qualify as leaders in your church, so the start up process will be longer than gathering groups of friends, but it’s important to offer multiple strategies to form groups. After all, one size does not fit all.
Connecting through a Shared Experience
Shared experience can range from serving teams to missions trips to Rooted groups. These are higher commitment experiences that quickly bond people together. While every group may not start this way, it would be a waste to allow these tight knit groups to discontinue.
When your people serve in the community, they develop a connection. When they travel together outside of the country, they certainly bond together. When they spend 10 weeks in a Rooted group, they are united by a powerful experience that stretches them in many ways. All of these experiences beg for a way to continue. Give them an opportunity to continue.
Think About This
This is a short list. This is just a sample of the ways your people can connect into community. What I want you to hear is that people need more than content. If they only needed content, then you could post online videos for them to watch, and they would just grow on their own. The problem is that they won’t watch videos in isolation, and they can’t grow without encouragement, support, accountability, and relationship with others. People are just not made that way.
Offer as many opportunities as possible for people to connect in community. Start friend groups, campaign groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, topic studies, activity groups, affinity groups, support groups, and on-going groups out of shared experiences. My only caution is this: Don’t start all of these all at once. But, for everyone who tells you “no,” offer them something they might say “yes” to.
Justin Bird from Crossfit once said, “People came for the fit and stayed for the family.” (from a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast with Jay Kim). I wrote about Crossfit a few years back in a post called What Michelob Ultra Understands About Community: “Now, before you announce in the next staff meeting that your church is going to open its own CrossFit gym, don’t miss the point. Community comes in various shapes and sizes: small groups, activity groups, task groups, classes, Bible studies — all of these are environments where community can take place, but none are a guarantee that community will take place. Community is formed around common goals, common interests, and even common enemies. Maybe promoting community in the church is recognizing the community that is already taking place.”
How are you creating community in your church? What do you need to try?
Your life is busy. This is true of every pastor, especially if you are a senior pastor. When you started ministry, you were focused on shepherding and teaching. But, as things it turned out, the senior pastor’s role feels more like being the CEO of a small (or not so small) company. Your time and attention are greatly divided. And, the ministry of every staff member is important. But, research shows how small groups contribute more to the overall ministry of any church.
I’m not going to waste your time delivering a sales pitch about why I think small groups are the best thing since sliced bread. I want to present you with the facts based on over 30 years of research from multiple sources.
Why a Post-Pandemic Edition? The world has changed. The culture has changed. Your church has changed. It’s time to stop leading the church you lost and to start leading the church you have. This guide will help you to move your church forward.
Every church I’ve worked with since March 2020 has increased the number of group leaders and the number of group members. While many other aspects of church ministry are struggling, groups are thriving. While worship services have struggled in decentralized environment, groups have thrived.
You’ve seen how some groups produce great growth in their members while other groups merely tolerate each other. Some groups excel at reproducing leaders. Other groups seem to just go through the motions. What makes the difference?
You could assume that the leader makes the difference. You might be on to something. But, what is it about that leader that makes for a good group? If you could figure that out, then you could multiply that enthusiasm across all of your groups. Let’s dig into what makes an effective group.
What is an Effective Group?
The simplest definition is a group who fulfills their purpose. If the group’s goal is the three F’s: fun, food, and fellowship, then if the group is fat and happy, they are a success. Every group could be a little happier at least. But, there is a difference between the group’s purpose and God’s purpose for the group.
The mission of the church is to make disciples. You know Jesus’ works from Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Now, go back and read it again, and really read it this time. (No yada, yada, yada’s allowed). Effective groups make disciples.
How Do You Make a Disciple?
One common Western definition of a disciple is a student. Students study. The more a student knows and the better decisions the student makes, the more they become like Christ, right? The problem is that churches often produce a lot of over-educated members with poor character. If articulating biblical principles was the only factor to growing in Christlikeness, then the Sunday sermon would be all that is necessary. The problem is that sermons don’t make disciples. There are a lot of knowledgeable Christians whose lives don’t reflect much of Christ. After all, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). It would be fair to ask whether your people’s behavior more closely resembles Galatians 5:19-21 or Galatians 5:22-23. Information alone doesn’t produce transformation. There are other elements to making disciples.
From the Great Commission and from my own experience, I see three key elements in making a disciple: the Holy Spirit, the “curriculum,” and the community. The Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God in the lives of believers. The “curriculum” might be a study guide, but let’s not limit curriculum to that. The community is equally important to the curriculum. Who you join with is highly important in character formation.
The Holy Spirit
While there are diverse opinions about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, you can agree that you cannot give what you do not have. Every believer has the Holy Spirit. As far as being an element of an effective group, at least one person in the group must be saved.
The Holy Spirit guides you (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit has revealed the truth of God’s Word, the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit illuminates your mind (John 16:15). The Holy Spirit gives words to say when you don’t know what to say (Mark 13:11). The Holy Spirit empowers you to serve others (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). Attachment to the Holy Spirit produces spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). While you must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to see this fruit, it is the Spirit’s work and not just your sweat.
The Holy Spirit is present in the group meeting through his presence, through prayer, through God’s Word, and in the interactions of the group members. The Holy Spirit saturates daily quiet times and spiritual practices. Without God’s presence, there is no power for transformation. While you can become well disciplined, you cannot transform yourself. It just takes more than you’ve got.
In Western thought, which was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, the church picked up the notion that if you knew what was right and made the right choices, then you could live a life that reflected Christ. The problem is that no matter how hard you work, eventually you run out of steam. That doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It just means that all of that well-intentioned trying doesn’t achieve the goal of Christlike character. And, it’s not supposed to. After all, you cannot become godly without God or other believers. Study is part of the curriculum, but it’s not the only part.
The curriculum also involves your life circumstances. Your problems are your teachers, (and some days you want to skip school). The hardships, trials, and pain of your life cause you to seek better solutions and force you to grow in ways you haven’t volunteered to. But, the curriculum is not only pain and trials, the curriculum also includes serving and sharing and taking a risk with others. You grow by trying new things – serving the poor, taking a missions trip, and loving your neighbors in practical ways.
What is life teaching you? What is serving teaching you? What is pain teaching you? What is your group teaching you? All of these experiences produce a powerful hermeneutic within the confines of orthodox Christian belief.
Now, don’t get me wrong. God gave us a book, the Bible, and God gave us the left side of our brains. That’s not a coincidence. But, those aren’t the only faculties at your disposal to attain godly character.
Over the last nine weeks, I’ve participated in a weekly book club to discuss The Other Half of the Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnationby Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks. This book confirmed many of the things that small group people have known intuitively. The quality of your community is equally important to the curriculum you study. Wilder and Hendricks teach that things like joy, hesed (community), group identity, and healthy correction create the necessary soil to produce godly character.
Hesed is “wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty–in short, acts of devotion and loving-kindness that go beyond the requirements of duty,” elaborates Bible scholar Darrell L. Bock. You need a loyal and loving community to grow spiritually.
While I would need to write an entire book to explain Wilder and Hendricks’ book, the importance of community is clear in making disciples. You need people to model, instruct, correct, encourage, support, and partner with you in your spiritual development. You need people who love you but are not impressed with you to willingly speak the truth in love. I experienced this personally.
Years ago as a young pastor who was overly influenced by David Letterman, I frequently used a word that was unbecoming to a pastor. My senior pastor lovingly confronted me by saying, “When you use that word, it takes away from who you are.” He didn’t scold me and say, “You are a pastor. You work for me. No pastor on this staff is going to talk like that around here. If you don’t stop it, then you’re out of here.” No, he gently and lovingly told me the truth. I immediately stopped using that word. Who says these things to you? Who stands by you no matter what? How are these things communicated in your groups?
Disciples aren’t made in isolation. While there is a place for solitude and silence, character is forged in relationship with others. Whether on mission fields or in mine fields of emotions, by serving at soup kitchens or through praying in hospital waiting rooms, the bonds of community grow your character.
Think About This
Some groups depend on the Holy Spirit to zap them into godly character. I guess I was never thoroughly zapped. Other groups have diligently studied the Scripture only to become judgmental and legalistic in some ways. Some have solely embraced community only to be led in the wrong direction. But, the combination of these elements produces something powerful. The people of God filled with the Spirit of God and living out the Word of God produces amazing things. Your groups can produce amazing things.
Covid forced every church online. This was both a great inconvenience and a great opportunity. To be honest, some churches have done better than others with their online services. Much of the result depends on the effort the church makes with their online services. For those who merely stream their in-person service, quality is spotty at best. (Take a few minutes to watch your church’s recent online service. You’ll see what I mean.)
Others put in the effort to pre-record their online service, like Pinnacle Church in Canton, NC. They provide a higher quality, direct-to-camera approach for their growing online congregation. Even this smaller congregation with limited equipment is doing a lot of the right things. Regardless of the quality of your online worship service, how are you discipling your online congregation?
Some churches are satisfied with using a multiplier to calculate their online audience based on the number of views. Certainly you want to know that your online service is effectively reaching others. But, your effectiveness online is far more than the number of eyeballs. Jay Kranda, the online campus pastor at Saddleback Church, had much to say about this in our interview earlier this year. Listen here.
Here’s what you know – people are watching online. Some are staying home out of an abundance of caution. Some are watching online because it’s just more convenient for them. Others are participating with your church online for the first time. This is the group I mentioned in last week’s post, Start Leading the Church You Have. Where are you leading them?
The Same Expectations
Prior to 2020, online ministry was a novelty. Then around March 2020, online ministry became a necessity. Today, online ministry is an opportunity.
While almost every church saw online ministry as a necessity during the pandemic, some still treat it like a novelty. They see the real congregation as the in-person audience and view the online congregation as a bit of a play thing. That may seem harsh, but let me ask you this: what do you expect from your online congregation? What are you leading them to do?
Typically, churches will ask their in-person congregation for contact information on their first visit in exchange for a welcome gift. They offer next steps, small groups, and serving opportunities. They expect participation, giving, community, and serving. Your online congregation is not any less than your in-person congregation. They are with you. And, they will take next steps when you offer them.
Engage Your Online Congregation
Online worship services can become passive unless you intentionally engage your online congregation. Some of this is accomplished by speaking direct-to-camera, which usually involves recording a separate online experience. Mere streaming video is not church online. Whether you stream live or pre-record, how you communicate with the online congregation is important.
If you direct your announcements and opportunities only to your in-person attendance, then your online folks won’t pay attention. You’re not talking to them. Make simple adjustments like referring to both your in-person and online congregations when you invite them to take next steps. Or during the announcements for your in-person service, have someone speak direct-to-camera to your online congregation. People will take a next step if you invite them.
Instead of asking them to respond with a card in the pew, ask them to text a word to your dedicated text line (check out Zipwhip) or send them to a dedicated landing page on your website for first time guests, giving, small groups, serving, etc. And, when they reach out, be prepared with a response. This could be a signed letter in the mail or an email sequence. When people contact you, reach out to them ASAP. In fact, you should have your response in place before you make the invitation.
Connecting into Community
Your online congregation might be around the corner, across the country, or on the other side of the world. Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, recently baptized a member of their online congregation who flew to Atlanta from her home in New York City. She now has friends in NYC watching Community Bible Church online each week. Whether your church is large or small, by putting your worship service online, you can potentially see a global impact. But, don’t stop there.
While online worship services are a starting point for your online congregation, they are only part of the experience of making disciples. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Worship services can catalyze a commitment to aspire to godly character, grow in faith, or improve their marriage or parenting skills, but the working out comes in biblical community or hesed. Without other believers encouraging, supporting, and holding each other accountable, lasting growth doesn’t happen. God designed us for community.
With an online congregation, community happens in various forms. Some people will join you in online small groups. These groups can meet by video, audio only, or asynchronously. Use the platforms that are the most familiar to your people. Different platforms will work equally as well for different people. But, don’t stop there.
Give your online congregation permission and opportunity to start their own groups – in-person or online. If people don’t live near the church, they can gather a group of friend just like Community Bible Church’s online member in New York. Whether the group meets in-person or online depends on the comfort level of the person starting the group. The church can support these group leaders by providing easy-to-use curriculum, offering a new leader briefing, and giving the support of a coach. Imagine if every member of your online congregation started his or her own group. Think of the impact.
Thoughts to Ponder
As I mentioned in last week’s post (Stop Leading the Church You Lost), the church you have today is your church. Too much has transpired since March 2020 for your church to just snap back to pre-Covid numbers. And, that’s okay.
For many church as many as 30 percent to 50 percent or more of their regular congregation worship online. You wouldn’t ignore a third of your congregation if they were in your church’s sanctuary, would you? Imagine turning toward the right side of your congregation, but ignoring those seated on the left side. That’s ridiculous. Don’t let this happen with the 30-50 percent who are gathering for worship online.
How will you engage your online congregation? How will you help your online congregation leverage their relationships to form groups either locally or online? Who needs a message of hope? Who needs encouragement? Think about it – the possibilities are endless.
Monica Lee is the Community & Discipleship Pastor at Radiant Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Radiant Church, led by Senior Pastor, Lee M. Cummings, is a multi-site church and is the parent of the Radiant Network of Churches.
Monica began her career in corporate America before transitioning into ministry staff. She is a life-long Michigander, and she loves to spend time with Matt, her husband of 19 years, and their two teenage children: Gavin and Taylor. Together, they share a love for family time, travel, and adventure!
Well, 2021 hasn’t quite turned out the way that we thought it would. It’s not 2020, but it’s also not 2019. The world has changed. Our people have changed. Hybrid life seems here to stay. People are craving community. Keeping certain things virtual. And being pickier overall about how they spend their time. How do we move forward with small groups in 2021? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by moving backward. That’s why I am offering the 2021 Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This FREE On Demand Video Resource will help you navigate the changing culture within your church. Sign up at allenwhite.org/reset and start now. Fall 2021 looks to be the largest group launch opportunity you’ve ever seen. Let me guide you in getting prepared.